The first examples of this poetic form were written in the 12th century. They were composed by French poet Marie De France who is well-regarded for her collection, Lais. English authors inspired by her work and by the work of authors with similar intentions began appearing in English in the 14th century. The Anglicized versions of French lais were the same in many ways. Except, they were set in Britain and inspired by Celtic stories.
A lai is a lyric poem written in couplets. Each line contained eight syllables. This simple form had few other requirements. But, most were inspired by Celtic legends (or at least those written in English were). Some of these, like Sir Orfeo, have been translated into songs.
Examples of Lais
Sir Orfeo is a Breton lai written in the 13th or 14 century. It tells the story of Orpheus and his rescue of his wife from the fairy king. The story begins with Orfeo, the King of England, who loses his wife, Heurodis (a stand-in for Eurydice of classical Greek mythology), to a fairy king (rather than Hades).
The king leaves his court and wanders into the forest, hoping to find his lost wife. He wanders for many years, sleeping on the ground, and eating berries and roots. Eventually, he finds a castle filled with bodies, all of whom are sleeping. His wife is among them. He meets the fairy king there and entertains him with his harp. Here are a few lines from the lai:
Bot he schuld thenche that he were
think In on of the joies of Paradis,
Swiche melody in his harping is.
Orfeo was a king,
In Inglond an heighe lording,
A stalworth man and hardi bo;
Large and curteys he was also
His fader was comen of King Pluto
Today, the lai is preserved in three manuscripts with evidence suggesting that it derived from the text Lai d’Orphey. Scholars believe the story was also influenced by tales like The Wooding of Etain and other tales from Metamorphoses.
Havelok the Dane
Havelok the Dane is a 13th-century lai from the Four Romances of England. Scholars have suggested that the story of Havelock, in the few forms there are records of, was a popular one. The character may be based on a ruler from the 10th century, Amlaíb Cuarán. The lai begins with these lines:
Herkneth to me, gode men –
Wives, maydnes, and alle men –
Of a tale that ich you wile telle,
Wo so it wile here and therto dwelle.
The tale is of Havelok imaked:
Whil he was litel, he yede ful naked.
Havelok was a ful god gome –
He was ful god in everi trome;
He was the wicteste man at nede
That thurte riden on ani stede.
The Franklin’s Tale by Geoffrey Chaucer
This better-known example of an English lai is part of The Canterbury Tales. It tells the story of two lovers Arveragus and Dorigen, who want an equal marriage. One where both husband and wife share the same amount of responsibility. But, in public, things have to be different.
A squire named Aurelius intrudes on their marriage while Arveragus is traveling, and to get him to leave her alone, Dorigen tells him that they can be together if, while Arveragus is gone, Aurelius can get rid of all the stones on the coast of Brittany.
With the help of a magician, Aurelius manages the deed. He confronts Dorigen and demands that she give him her love as she promised. Her husband tells her that she has to stay true to her word and when she goes to Aurelius, he releases her from her promise. Here are a few lines from the lai after Aurelius has released Dorigen from her promise:
She thanked him upon her knees bare,
And home unto her husband is she fare,
And told him all, as ye have hearde said;
And, truste me, he was so well apaid,
That it were impossible me to write.
Why should I longer of this case indite?
Arviragus and Dorigen his wife
In sov’reign blisse ledde forth their life;
Ne’er after was there anger them between;
He cherished her as though she were a queen,
And she was to him true for evermore;
Of these two folk ye get of me no more.
Explore more Geoffrey Chaucer poems.
A lai is a long poem that is sometimes written in couplets and is sometimes divided into stanzas of between six and sixteen lines. These have between four and eight syllables per line and deal with mythology, morality, and Celtic legends.
Celtic mythology is a genre of myths of the Celtic people. For instance, the people of Ireland, Scotland, and western Britain. Most of these stories are maintained through oral storytelling, while others were written down.
A narrative poem is a poem that tells a story. For example, The Iliad and The Odyssey. Or, The Franklin’s Tale by Geoffrey Chaucer. These poems are written in verse, but like stories, they have multiple characters, a central conflict, dialogue, and more.
Related Literary Terms
- Ballad: a kind of verse, sometimes narrative in nature, often set to music and developed from 14th and 15th-century minstrelsy.
- Chivalric Romance: a genre of literature and culture popular during the Medieval and Early Modern periods in Europe from the 12th century.
- Ballade: a medieval and Renaissance verse form distinct from the far more common “ballad.” It was commonly used in France during the 13th-15th centuries.
- Baroque: used to define a literary period that began in the 1500s and lasted through the 1700s in Europe.
- Epic Poetry: a long narrative poem that tells the story of heroic deeds, normally accomplished by more-than-human characters.
- Closed Couplet: a pair of lines that are grammatically complete, or at least logically complete, on their own. They also usually rhyme.